Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact

Switching gears back to nonfiction, I picked up Hitler's Scientists (2004), a detailed account of science and ethics in Germany during the first half of the 20th century.  As a burgeoning scientist, I have sat through many an ethics class (thanks to the NIH initiative to raise responsible scientists) and was interested to read a completely different take on the subject.

The book is by John Cornwell, an English author most famous for Hitler's Pope (1999), a somewhat controversial (to put it lightly) work that contends that Pope Pius XII did not do enough to stand up to Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Hitler's Scientists presents a detailed description of the state of science in Germany in the decades surrounding World War 2.  Such varied fields as medicine, biology, racial "science," physics, and conventional weaponry are discussed, always in light of the prevailing political climate of Nazi Germany.  Two areas of research, the nuclear program under Werner Heisenberg and the rocket program headed by Wernher von Braun, receive special attention due to their importance (or seeming importance, anyway) for the German war effort and their consequent impact on the Cold War.  The final chapters of the book examine how the ethical legacy of the Nazi scientists should temper the behavior of the scientific community in the present day.

It becomes clear that a hallmark of German science and technology development during the Nazi period is its highly fragmented nature.  Hitler encouraged infighting (whether deliberate or through unskillful management) between the various personalities, cliques, and groups which constituted his government.  As a result, many small groups were often working toward the same goal under different auspices with no knowledge of one another (let alone the science).  Compare this to the centralized nature of the Manhattan Project and its policy of information sharing, and it is no wonder the Allies were able to win the race to an atomic weapon (remember, it wasn't until the very end of 1944 that the Allies conclusively knew that Germany did not have the capability to build an atomic weapon).

Alongside the historical account, Cornwell poses his central thesis.  Namely, can science be free from the taint of politics?  Should scientists consider their work within a vacuum or are they obligated to examine the possible consequences of their research?  From the subtitle of the book, I think you can easily surmise that Cornwell absolutely rejects the idea that scientists are not responsible for the ultimate outcomes of their work.

Another interesting question raised by Cornwell is whether science in a totalitarian society inherently differs from that pursued in a democracy?  Is a democracy better equipped to conduct science in an ethical manner or handle the resulting technologies in a more responsible manner?  A number of incidents (e.g. the use of the atomic bomb, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments) suggest that this might not be the case.

For dealing with what some might consider a fairly dry subject, I found the book extremely easy to read--in fact, it was a real page-turner.  I would recommend Hitler's Scientists to those who have an interest in the impact science can have on world at large.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Old Man's War

What do you get when you combine Starship Troopers with David Brin's Uplift universe and add a dash of Ender's Game for good measure?  Why, Old Man's War, the latest novel that I managed to finish during my extended bout with strep throat!

Old Man's War is the premiere novel by John Scalzi, a new talent (at least at the time this was published in 2005), with owes a heavy debt to other military SF (e.g. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman).  It was nominated for a Hugo award for best novel in 2006.

The novel tells the story of John Perry, who at 75 years of age, enlists in the Colonial Defense Force (CDF).  Like all recruits, in exchange for his service, he is given a new genetically-modified, youthful body, and, upon retirement, the freedom to settle on a colony off Earth.  The first half of the book details his training and initial combat experiences.  The second half really gets to the meat of the plot--the CDF finds itself in conflict with an alien species over Coral, one of the all-too-few planets in the galaxy appropriate for colonization.  The Rraey have gotten a hold of technology which allows them to predict where CDF ships will materialize (see Skip Drive below) when they launch a counterattack to take back Coral.  As a result, the CDF fleet is annihilated, and Perry is the only survivor.  He is rescued from Coral by a company of soldiers from the Ghost Brigade, the special ops branch of the CDF.  Perry is attached to this special force for the remainder of operations on Coral, and comes to some interesting realizations about himself in the process.

Interesting technology abounds in the book--while none of the concepts are particularly novel to SF, they are seamlessly integrated into the world without being gratuitous.  Genetic engineering and consciousness transfer are essential for the creation of CDF troops.  Each recruit is interfaced with a BrainPal that allows people to communicate images, sounds, thoughts, etc. with one another--this is critical to the efficiency of CDF forces in combat.  FTL travel is made possible by the Skip Drive, which essentially works by punching a hole in the fabric of the current universe through to another highly similar universe.

While I found the novel to be both interesting and entertaining, I kept coming back to one major issue:  the CDF lacked a really compelling adversary.  They spent most of their time running around the galaxy fighting sporadic turf wars on any given colonial planet against any given alien race.  I would have found the plot to be more compelling and had a more substantial connection with the characters if the CDF was fighting an avowed enemy of the human race.  Something similar to the buggers in Ender's Game or the arachnids in Starship Troopers.  By the end of the book, we did have a reason to disdain the Rraey, but it took three-quarters of the book to get to that point.  Also, there was a large disconnect between the CDF fighters and the colonists they were defending such that the CDF seemed to have little reason to care them (other than the fact that they were human, which I suppose be a profound motivator in the depths of space), and, consequently, neither did I.

Overall though, an extremely entertaining read.  I'm looking forward to reading the sequels (of which there are currently three)!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Under the Dome

I have fallen somewhat behind on my updating due to some crazy weather and a week long bout of strep throat that really knocked me out.  So, without further ado...

This is the second of the books I received as gifts during the holidays, and, boy, it is a whopper!  It weighs in at almost 1100 pages.  I hate to say it, but this book suffers from what I call  "The Stand syndrome," meaning it could use some more rigorous editing.

The story opens with a mysterious series of events--a small plane crashes during a routine training flight, a truck explodes in the middle of the road into town, a woodchuck is sliced neatly in two.  It soon becomes apparent that a mysterious invisible barrier has appeared around Chester's Mill, a small town in Maine.  The barrier is impervious to any attempt to disrupt it, though is permeable to sound and air.

[In a funny coincidence, this is similar to the premise of The Simpsons movie (though I haven't seen it myself).  When there was talk that King's idea may have been influenced by this, he went through the trouble of releasing a manuscript on his website from the 1970's entitled 'The Cannibals' whose plot eventually formed the basis for Under the Dome.]

Things go bad for the people in Chester's Mill when Big Jim Rennie, owner of the local used car superstore, makes a play to become leader of the town for the remainder of the crisis.  He does this in dictator-esque fashion by gathering his own force of thugs around town to jam through his own "emergency measures" which serve only to consolidate his personal power.  In fact, one pivotal scene where Rennie instigates a riot at the local supermarket is directly comparable to the Reichstag fire of 1933 that led to the Enabling Act and Hitler's subsequent assumption of total power in Germany.

Opposing Rennie is a small group of townspeople, led by Dale "Barbie" Barbara, an ex-army officer drifter who happens to get trapped when the Dome appears.  This group, while attempting to resist Rennie and his thugs, seeks to discover the source of the Dome.  In the end, this small band is able to free Chester's Mill, though not before a massive firestorm is unleashed which essentially destroys the town and most of its inhabitants.

Under the Dome has an interesting premise, though I think that, in the end, King didn't quite make the plot convincing enough.  First, the notion that a town of several thousand people would fall so completely under Rennie's rule in such a short time stretches believability (the entire novel takes place in just over a week).  I realize the appearance of the Dome is an extraordinary circumstance, but most of the people I know wouldn't fold up shop and stop caring about themselves or others in a few days!  Second, the conclusion of the novel is just sort of meh.  I was left with the same feeling I had after finishing The Stand:  after building up a rich tapestry of characters and setting, the climax of the plot (i.e. how the Dome is lifted) was sort of a let down.  Yes, it involves aliens and, yes is sort of cheesy (two criticisms from some of the more highbrow reviewers), but King has pulled this sort of thing off well before (see e.g. Insomnia).

[3/5 hamsters]